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The Neapolitan Creche – The Art of the Presepio

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on December 3, 2010 | 8:42 am | 0 Comment

Neapolitan Creche FigurineEvery piece is a masterpiece. Finely crafted miniature works of art, the entire range of emotions spring from the faces, the eyes and the gestures of these spectacular miniature replicas of Neapolitan life. Each piece capturing a part of the Neapolitan spirit, each scene recording 18th century life in Naples.

A traditional craft that is said to date back to Saint Francis of Assisi’s commissioning of a Nativity scene in the 13th century, Naples elevated this craft into high art. By the 18th century, thanks in part to the patronage of King Charles the III, the art of the presepio was in its golden age. The traditional life sized wooden religious Nativity scenes that were crafted for the church had evolved into animated, detailed and expressive miniature terracotta figurines in an art form that blended sculpting, painting, fashion, and tailoring. In true Baroque fashion, the sacred and the profane collided, setting the Holy Family and the procession of the Magi alongside vignettes that portrayed contemporary life in 18th century Naples. Scenes that depicted ordinary people going about their ordinary lives: shoemakers and innkeepers, bakers and fruit vendors, fishmongers and butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths, and the beggars, the poor and the derelict.

These intricate scenes soon found their way into the homes of the royalty, nobility, and the wealthy bourgeoisie and the “keeping up with the Jones'” mentality catapulted the art as patrons sought to outdo one another. Today, the Neapolitan Presepio or Presepe, o’Presebbio in dialect, is probably Naples most widely known Christmas tradition and the art of the craft is world renowned.

In centuries old workshops and artist studios in Naples, master and apprentice artisans still sculpt these intricate figurines in terracotta and wood. Rarely the work of one artist, the hands, feet, or limbs may be entrusted to an apprentice, while sculpting of the faces will be the work of a master. The pieces are colored by expert painters and attached to a body made of iron wire and a thick hemp wick. Hand blown glass eyes and costumes made of fine fabrics finish the pieces. The figurines are then placed in and around mangers or “caves” that are typically made of natural materials or in elaborate city or country landscape settings. Today’s presepio might also include lights and water and mechanical features and today’s figurines include everything from traditional 18th century figures to contemporary figures on the national and international stage.

Most of the Neapolitan workshops are clustered along the ancient alley Via San Gregorio Armeno where you can find these masterpieces alongside mass-produced items made of plastic, wax or poor quality ceramic.

Seasonal Presepe Exhibits

Permanent Presepe Exhibits in Naples and Campania

Caserta Royal Palace
Via Douhet, 22, Caserta
Open daily except Tuesday 08:30 – 19:00

Montevergine Abbey and Sanctuary
Museo Internazionale del Presepio – Chiostro dell’Abbazia Benedettina
Via Montevergine, Mercolgliano, Avellino
Open daily 08:00 – 17:00

Palazzo Reale
Piazza Del Plebiscito, 1
Open daily except Wednesdays 0900 – 2000

San Lorenzo Maggiore Monumental Complex, Museum of the Works
Piazza San Gaetano, 76, Centro Storico
Open Mon – Sat 0930 – 1730, Sundays 0930 – 1330
Admission 9,00 (includes the Museum of the works and the archaeological excavations below the complex)
Small presepe collection on the 4th floor of the Museum of the Works, dating from the 1700s and later.

San Martino Charterhouse Museum
Sezione Presepiale
Largo San Martino, 8 Vomero
Open daily except Wednesday 08:30 – 19:30
Admission 6,00 Reduced 3,00
One of the most important collections of the Neapolitan Presepe.

Santa Chiara Monumental Complex
18th Century Presepe
Via Santa Chiara, 49/c, Centro Storico
Open Mon – Sat 09:30 – 17:30, Sundays 09:30 – 13:30
Part of a series of crèches made in Naples during the reign of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon who commissioned artists such as Giuseppe Sanmartino (Veiled Christ in Sansevero Chapel) to sculpt figurines. The presepio is displayed in a room off of the Majolica-tiled Cloister.

Via San Gregorio Aremeno, Naples Christmas Alley
Via San Gregorio Armeno, Centro Storico

Permanent Presepe Exhibits in the US

Neapolitan Presepio
Carnegie Museum of Art
Hall of Architecture
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA
December 3rd – January 6th
A Pittsburgh holiday tradition since 1957, over 100 figurines dating from 1700 – 1830 will be on display.

Hanley-Gueno Neapolitan Presepio
St. John the Evangelist Cathedral Museum
St. John the Evangelist Cathedral
515 Cathedral Street
Lafayette, Louisiana

Crèche of the Abbey of Regina Laudis
The Abbey of Regina Laudis
273 Flander Road
Bethlehem, Connecticut
An 18th century crèche gifted to the Abbey in 1949 by Loretta Hines Howard (Howard was the donor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s presepio).

St. John Cantius Presepio
St. John Cantius Parish
825 N. Carpenter St.
Chicago, Illinois

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Passionate about my adopted home, for me Naples is the perfect canvas. From its breathtaking vistas to its rich cultural heritage, I could live here a lifetime and never see it all, photograph it all, or write about it all.

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